For most of the season he has only imagined that he was on the field when actually he was standing on the sideline. Wearing a headset week after week, Mike McCoy, Utah's reserve quarterback, relayed plays from coaches in the press box to starting quarterback Frank Dolce on the field with a complex set of hand signals. As soon as Dolce was under center, McCoy scanned the defense as if he were in the action, and then decided where he would throw the football, or what audible he would call.

      "Mentally, I went through every rep in a game," says McCoy.McCoy will be doing more than that today. When Utah plays the University of Texas-El Paso at noon in Rice Stadium, he will be reading defenses and throwing passes for real. McCoy, a sophomore who transferred from Long Beach State during the off-season, has suddenly been promoted to the starting job in place of the injured Dolce.

      McCoy was forced into relief duty last week against New Mexico when Dolce limped off the field with a knee injury. He played the entire second half, completing 15 of 25 passes for 163 yards during a 24-7 loss. It was his first action of the season unless you want to count the five plays of handoff duty he performed while mopping up the Utah State game.

      "I've gotten more reps in practice this week," says McCoy. "Otherwise, everything has been the same this week. I had the same attitude when Frank was the quarterback. I just tried to be ready."

      If McCoy sounds rather ho-hum about the situation, perhaps it's because he's been here before. As a redshirt freshman last season at Long Beach State, he also was called into action when the 49ers' starting quarterback was sidelined by an injury. He wound up starting five games, then returned to headset duty when the starter was healthy. Playing in eight games, he completed 87 of 165 passes (53 percent) for 938 yards, 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

      After Long Beach State dropped its football program, a number of recruiters lined up to court McCoy, and one of them was Utah quarterback coach Dan Henson, who just happened to be in the neighborhood at the time. He was driving past Long Beach about the same time he heard the news on his car radio that the 49ers were dropping football. He changed his plans and made a beeline for the Long Beach football office. McCoy eventually visited Wyoming, Oklahoma State and Utah before deciding on Utah.

      What a difference two years made. No one even recruited McCoy out of high school. He wound up walking on at Long Beach State and earned a scholarship a year later from the late George Allen.

      At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, McCoy possesses more mobility, size and arm strength than Dolce, but he lacks Dolce's experience and savvy. Last week, Utah coach Ron McBride indicated the Utes would simplify their playbook and run more with McCoy on the field, but by mid-week he was saying, "He can handle the whole package. As well he should, considering that every Ute play this season has been communicated through him. "He's a good player," says McBride. "He just needs experience."

      The Utes desperately need a win after last week's surprising loss to lowly New Mexico. They are 4-2 with the most difficult part of their schedule ahead of them (road games against Air Force and Fresno State the following two weekends, for instance). As McBride says, "All the pressure is on us. We are not in an enviable position. We've used up whatever bonus we had."

      This probably is not the best weekend for winless UTEP to come to town. The Utes are rebounding from an irritating loss, and a homecoming crowd of more than 30,000 is expected in the stands.

      "This is a big game for us," says McCoy. "We've got to put last week behind us."

      A good performance by McCoy and his teammates today could help the Utes do just that.